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Breakfast

Eating the World Every Morning

We Are Now Craving Marlin Biryani, Which Is Not an Easy Itch to Scratch

Nov.03.16

We Are Now Craving Marlin Biryani, Which Is Not an Easy Itch to Scratch

by Jesse Lewis

Biryani in Mauritius

“You like biryani? Spices, basmati rice, roast chicken. Only the best,” says Muslim Patene, the Bhandari, or biryani master, at his hawker stall in the back of the market in Flacq, a town on the northeast coast of Mauritius.

All over Mauritius people eat biryani: a rice dish made from long-
grained basmati rice, meat, potatoes, and spices. It was traditionally a Muslim dish created for celebrations, but its popularity transcends religious and ethnic boundaries in multicultural Mauritius.

But how did this South Indian dish reach this island? There’s a clue in the name for biryani chefs in Mauritius: Bhandari was the name for a cook in a crew of Lascars (South Asian sailors or soldiers) on British Navy ships in the colonial era, which stopped in Mauritius to bring indentured labor to work in sugar plantations.

The biryani’s origins are traced back to North India’s conquering Mughal emperors, who brought the dish to South India, along with their chefs. According to historians, it was originally conceived as a grand, luxurious dish for the thousands of guests at the royal court on special occasions. To make these huge quantities of biryani, Mughal chefs invented a special pot in which to cook it, called a deg. These conical pots have a large bottom and narrow neck, so that steam condenses and rolls down the curved slope back into the food, enriching it with flavor.

Muslim says it takes them seven or eight hours to prepare these huge degs of biryani. While everyone else is tucked in bed, the family starts cooking in the predawn darkness. Most Bhandaris across Mauritius serve chicken or beef biryani, but Muslim’s family also serve vegetarian and fish versions. I usually order marlin biryani with an icy bottle of Coke. Each time I return, the portions seem to get bigger as the crew get to know me as a regular.

Heaping piles of basmati rice infused with spices, whole pods of cardamom and splinters of cinnamon bark hide cuts of roast meat, along with the obligatory potato. Then of course there are the condiments: pickled radishes and onions, a dab of spicy green chili paste, homemade tomato chutney, and sweet tamarind sauce lumpy with black seeds. The flavors are both exciting and comforting.

Sitting at a plastic stool at one of the white linoleum tables behind Muslim’s cramped stall, Hindi pop music plays and local shoppers come and go in the market beyond. Sharing my table, everyone is digging in, indulging in this luxurious meal conceived by royalty, but enjoyed by the masses.

The Most Lauded Bakery in Laos

Feb.20.17

The Most Lauded Bakery in Laos

by Janelle Bitker

Croissants in Luang Prabang

It’s not too surprising that Luang Prabang gets billed first and foremost as a spiritual center. The old town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because of its more than 30 temples with gleaming gold facades, multi-tiered roofs and glittering mosaics. As the sun rises every morning, tourists pour out onto the main drag to give alms to the city’s 200 monks, who take their tokens of rice while being blinded by a million camera flashes.

What’s more surprising is that guidebooks don’t emphasize how much Luang Prabang, the main tourist destination in Laos, feels like France. I contemplate this while walking to breakfast, passing French café after French café, their patios blurring with the sidewalks.

The French first built a consulate in Luang Prabang in 1885. After battles with Siam (modern-day Thailand), France added Laos to its roster of Southeast Asian territories, along with Cambodia and Vietnam. The Lao people had mixed feelings about its French overlords: better than the Siamese, certainly, but the French didn’t make many improvements in Laos. Most resources went to Vietnam during that nearly 50-year period.

I arrive at my destination, Le Banneton, the most lauded bakery in Laos. It’s a simple-looking place, with white walls, wood beams and a ceiling of arabesques. But the pastry case beckons with its golden hue of viennoiserie, delicate layered cakes and crusty baguettes.

I order one croissant aux beurre. A quick tear and the surface erupts into countless flakes, its stretchy center an excellent sign of its properly buttery lamination process. It isn’t the best croissant I’ve ever had, but after traveling through Southeast Asia for weeks, it tastes positively luxurious. I had nearly forgotten what wonders butter can do.

I close my eyes, enveloped in the hum of French tourists deep in conversation. Across the street, monks stroll into one of Luang Prabang’s many temple complexes, their robes saffron flashes in my peripheral vision. Next to me, a stack of old French fashion magazines easily outnumbers Lao reading material. On the other side, a French family of four battles over the last bite of opera cake. The kids whine for more dessert, which sounds remarkably the same in every language.

Articles abound that claim tourists are ruining Luang Prabang; they disrespect the town’s Buddhist traditions while indirectly forcing longtime residents out of their homes so they can be turned into hotels.

But on this morning at Le Banneton, on a quieter end of Luang Prabang’s main street, with the neighboring temple only hosting a couple of tourists at a time, and the monks drying out their orange laundry as usual, we coexist peacefully.

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

Feb.17.17

The Great Railway Breakfast Bazaar

by Bulbul Mankani

Kachoris in Jaipur

Indian trains provide an astonishing variety of fresh food all day. Food carts abound at major stations, serving fluffy fried poories with spicy potato curry, kachoris and chutneys, rice and cholas, and samosas. Sweet chai is a favorite. Vendors scurry between train windows with steaming kettles and precariously balanced cups. You need to call out for them quickly and have the correct change in hand: for the chaiwallahs, every second counts at the short station stops.

Traditionally, Indian travelers carry food from home, but it’s more exciting to buy breakfast from the train window, and Indian train journeys bring you regional specialties. Chugging through Uttar Pradesh, the asafetida-flavored curry with fried wheat puffs will sell out unless you yell for it loudly enough. In Kerala, breakfast is a crunchy crisp paratha with its spiral layers and yellow egg curry with a hint of coconut. In other southern states, idlis are king: steamed rice cakes with spicy daal and a few vegetables and coconut chutney, wrapped in a banana leaf. Also in the south, coffee from the region’s coffee estates replaces chai.

For three years, I took the Shatabdi Express train from Jaipur to New Delhi once a month. This early morning train served meals on board, but I could never resist the food carts. Waiting for the train, I could smell the pyaaz ki kachoris, a Jaipur specialty, being made. This deep-fried, savory snack travels well: a wheat pastry filled with fennel, coriander, chilies, cumin, and finely chopped fried onions.

Pyare Singh, one of Jaipur’s train station vendors, has been making kachoris for about a decade. He learned to make them in a small shop in the Old Town, and got the license to sell them when he was 29. He quickly understood that he would move more kachoris if he kept his product hot, and now he can stock about 80 of them in a glass box warmed by a hot-plate.

For me, two of Singh’s kachoris, downed with piping hot chai as I boarded the Shatabdi, gave me a sense that all was right with the world.

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

Feb.16.17

Divided By Politics, United in Salty Cheese

by Samantha Shields

Halloumi in Cyprus

When I lived in London’s Cypriot enclave, Green Lanes, I used to buy slabs of halloumi cheese from the huge, plastic buckets overflowing with cloudy brine that lurked in the corner of every greengrocers on the road. I’d eat it for breakfast raw, sliced in fresh pitta bread, loving its saltiness and squeakiness between my teeth, and the hits of freshness from flecks of mint.

It wasn’t until I moved to Cyprus many years later that I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. While it’s delicious raw, halloumi is at its very best straight off a hot grill. The char on the outside intensifies the flavor of the salt, and the inside doesn’t melt but instead keeps its wonderful texture. If you need a condiment, it goes equally well with Greek-Cypriot mosfilo jam, made from the tiny yellow fruit of a local hawthorn tree, or with Turkish-Cypriot ezme salad, a fiery chopped mixture of tomatoes, peppers, chilies, and pomegranate molasses.

Another thing I realized when I moved to Nicosia: this cheese is political. In the Republic of Cyprus, the southern part of the island that has been a member of the European Union since 2004, it’s called halloumi. In the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, occupied by Turkey since 1974, it’s hellim. Both cheeses are made from a mixture of goat, sheep and cows’ milk, although they shouldn’t contain too much cows’ milk.

A 2008 Greek-Cypriot attempt to secure European Union Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for halloumi failed, dogged by Turkish-Cypriot accusations of gastronationalism and a German company’s attempt to trademark the name hellim.

But last year the European Commission published an application to register the names halloumi and hellim, in Greek and Turkish, as PDOs for cheese of this type produced in all the territory of the island of Cyprus. Hopes are high that the attempt will succeed this year, putting halloumi and hellim in the same category as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, and feta. There are some concerns that small producers won’t be able to afford to pay the international body that will carry out production controls to monitor the milk ratios, but overall, the cheesemakers on both sides of the divide have managed to come together in a way that politicians have so far failed to.

At Mousikon Kafeneion, a traditional old-style cafe on the Greek-Cypriot side of Nicosia, a stone’s throw from the Green Line dividing the island’s capital, I ordered the Cypriot breakfast. Generous slices of grilled halloumi came with a dollop of mosfilo jam, the local smoked ham called lountza, chunks of fresh tomato and cucumber, and good bread and olive oil.

I listened to the call to prayer drifting over from the Selimiye Mosque on the other side of the border, and later the church bells from the Greek Orthodox Faneromeni Church not far from the cafe. Maybe the reunification of Cyprus will start with cheese.

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

Feb.15.17

A Love Letter to London’s Best Cheese-Soaked Potatoes

by Phylisa Wisdom

Raclette in London

I lived and worked in London for a little more than four years. I recently went back for a whirlwind one-week visit: seven opportunities for my favorite breakfasts. One of them comes from Borough Market, the iconic food market next to London Bridge train station.

Borough Market is one of the most crowded spaces in London. On any given weekend the prepared food and cart section is full to the brim with a crowd queuing for burgers, Turkish delight, brownies, coffee, salads, and Afghan curry, to name a few of my favorites. But the jewel in Borough Market’s crown—according to me and the poor, unfortunate souls I’ve spent many hours queueing with—is Kappacasein Dairy.

The menu does not change. Raclette or a cheese toastie, both £6 ($8). For me, it’s the raclette every time. The word raclette comes from the French word racler, “to scrape.” In this case, it’s a thick, locally-made Ogleshield cheese heated and scraped onto steaming baby new potatoes and crisp pickles. It is not exactly traditional breakfast fare.

When I was a 9-5 London worker, I liked Kappacasein raclette best on a long weekend midmorning or as an early lunch. You really need to allow for a midday slump after this breakfast.

On this occasion, I stopped by around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday and the queue was a fraction of what it usually is. My belly was empty on one of the coldest London days I can remember. I watched the enormous half-circle of cheese bubble and pop under an industrial-sized raclette set. I watched, breath visible in the chilly air, as the cheese heated up. Then the woman serving me grabbed the cheese, turned it about 45 degrees, and scraped the top layer onto the potatoes. Unlike many of the best heavy breakfasts, this is one for which you stand and wait.

After she added the pickles and fresh ground pepper to my cheesy potatoes I took my heavy plate to find an empty bit of curb to sit on. I noted as I walked that the immense weight I was carrying would soon be in my stomach. I wanted to eat fast so the cheese wouldn’t harden in the cold air, but it pays to savor both the raclette and the curbside view for people-watching.

After this breakfast, you have to keep moving or you’ll fall asleep. I walked to get an espresso from Borough Market institution Monmouth Coffee to cut through the fat. Digestif coffee in hand, I headed to the South Bank of the Thames to continue my day of visiting old favorites.

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

Feb.14.17

A Very Habit-Forming Pancake-Burrito Hybrid

by Charlotte Edwards

Jian Bing in Hebei Province

I’ve never been one for breakfast, so pre-baby, I usually skipped it. A month after giving birth and returning to work, I didn’t think twice about resuming my usual routine of preparing my husband’s breakfast and rushing off to catch the bus to work. However, I’d neglected to realize how much my appetite had increased because of breastfeeding.

By the mid-morning break on my first day back teaching English to nursing students at the local college in Renqiu, China, my stomach was growing uncontrollably. Luckily, outside the sprawling campus was a street filled with vendors preparing all sorts of delicious street foods for students who were unsatisfied by the cafeteria fare and hungry teachers like myself.

I needed to make a selection quickly so I got in a short line to buy a food that I’d never seen before: jian bing. A helpful student who was in front of me called it a pancake, but the only way it resembled the ones I grew up eating in the United States was that it started out round.

The woman who made it, probably no older than my student, poured a butter-colored batter on a large, round griddle and swiftly cracked an egg on top of it. When the egg was partially cooked, she used her hands to flip it over. Then she started asking me questions in rapid-fire sequence as she worked with impeccable precision and great speed.

“Can you eat spicy foods?”

“Just a little.”

“Do you want scallions and cilantro?”

“Yes, extra scallions, please.”

As she added a liberal amount of green atop the fiery red chili paste she asked, “Do you want crispy fried crackers or fried dough sticks?”

“Crackers, please,” I said, having just noticed the two options sitting on a shelf over her mobile makeshift kitchen that sat atop her three-wheeled cart. The crackers resembled a thin, rectangular tortilla chip, while the fried dough stick was just what it sounded like: a long piece of dough fried until the outside was crispy.

“Cut or uncut?” was her next question.

I wanted the huge burrito-like food cut in half, so I replied with a simple, “cut it.”

In less than three minutes, start to finish, my first jian bing was in my hands. It was piping hot and savory, and both soft and crispy. Thus began my daily jian bing habit, which lasted for the next two years.

It’s been several years since my first taste of jian bing, and while I’d like to eat it daily, my jeans tell me otherwise. So it remains a special treat that transports me to a past season of life.

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